Rediscovering long submerged origins
ALEXANDRIA, Virginia––The Showing Animals Respect & Kindness booth in the main hallway at the late July/early August AR-2015 conference was a crowd-stopper.
Featured were one of the SHARK drones, one of the most powerful lenses outside of top-secret military use mounted on a tripod, and SHARK founder Steve Hindi, with fellow Animal Rights Hall of Fame member Janet Enoch and investigator Mike Kobliska, energetically explaining to all comers how they use their investigative technology to expose cruelty to animals that, before SHARK debuted in 1992, often went undocumented and unnoticed.
As AR-2015 attendees passed the SHARK booth to enter one of the two exhibition halls, they passed a huge video monitor displaying continuous loop footage of a cow-nosed ray-killing contest that SHARK and the relatively new organization Fish Feel documented and exposed on June 13, 2015 near the mouth of the Patuxent River on Chesapeake Bay, Maryland.
Relatively familiar by now with undercover video of factory farming, rodeo, and many other forms of animal abuse in the names of getting food and finding entertainment, conference-goers often stopped and gasped––much like newly landed fish––at the intensity of violence directed at cow-nosed rays, a species both uninclined and unable to do humans any harm, even to escape being shot, hooked, dragged, and eventually bludgeoned to death.
Getting past the SHARK monitor, AR-2015 conference-goers then encountered, just inside the exhibition hall doorway, a second much smaller monitor showing the same footage on the Fish Feel table.
Not new concern
Concern for the suffering of fish was not a new issue for either SHARK and Steve Hindi, who was motivated to abandon trophy hunting and fishing and become a vegan activist in 1990 in part by having observed how sharks and other fish fought to stay alive.
Neither was concern for the suffering of fish a new issue for Fish Feel founder Mary Finelli, a lifelong animal rights activist who has raised her voice on behalf of species of every sort.
But the prominence of concern for fish was new to the AR conference series, hosted since 1981 by the Farm Animal Rights Movement.
To those who wondered why, Finelli recited some surprising statistics: “Earth is home to more than 30,000 known species of fish, which is more than all the other species of vertebrate animals combined… Globally, an estimated one to three trillion wild-caught fishes and 37 to 120 billion farmed fishes are killed commercially for food each year. Hundreds of millions more are killed for ‘sport.’ Fish are also increasingly replacing other animals for scientific experimentation. Approximately one-quarter of all the animals used for research and education in North America are fish. Additionally, some 1.5 billion fish are used for aquariums.
“Fish are sentient individuals, as has been scientifically shown,” Finelli continued. “Among other important qualities, they are perceptive, communicative, and personable. For example, groupers use body gestures to invite eels to hunt with them and to indicate where food can be found. They then work cooperatively to obtain it.
“By far largest number of exploited animals”
“Fish are by far the largest number of exploited vertebrate animals,” Finelli emphasized, “and arguably suffer the worst abuses. Grievously, they receive the least concern, even from the animal advocacy community.
“Fish are not protected by the Animal Welfare Act, nor by the Humane Slaughter Act,” Finelli pointed out. “They are routinely impaled, crushed, suffocated, and dissected while fully conscious. Commercial fishing also kills countless whales, dolphins, birds, and other animals. It obliterates underwater habitat and wreaks havoc on ecosystems. Farmed fish are commonly crammed together in foul water. Sea lice can infest these fish so severely that their flesh is eaten to the bone. They are continually subjected to painful procedures, and many are starved for days prior to their gruesome slaughter.
“Years ago,” Finelli recalled, “Animal Rights International founder Henry Spira observed that activists’ efforts were ‘a drop in the bucket,’ since at that time farmed animal issues were essentially unaddressed. Farmed animals are now receiving much attention,” nearly two decades after Spira’s death in 1998, “but Spira’s lament remains largely true while fish (and shellfish), who comprise such a vast percentage of exploited animals, receive so little notice. By ignoring fish so, the animal protection community is itself being very speciesist.”
Finelli––and SHARK––meanwhile might be credited with reconnecting the animal rights movement with some of its deepest but long submerged roots by raising the suffering of fish as a subject crying out for moral consideration.
Spira famously hosted Princeton University bioethicist Peter Singer in Spira’s New York City apartment while Singer was researching and writing his 1975 book Animal Liberation, often identified as the spark that ignited the animal rights movement.
Singer recalled in a 2010 guest column for The Guardian, of London, that some of his first awareness of animal suffering came during childhood walks with his father. “My father told me that he could not understand how anyone could enjoy an afternoon spent taking fish out of the water and letting them die slowly,” Singer wrote, discussing a report by Alison Mood of the British organization FishCount.org entitled Worse Things Happen at Sea: the Welfare of Wild-caught Fish.
“There is no humane slaughter requirement for wild fish caught and killed at sea, nor, in most places, for farmed fish,” Singer wrote. “Fish caught in nets by trawlers are dumped on board the ship and allowed to suffocate. Impaling live bait on hooks is a common commercial practice: long-line fishing, for example, uses hundreds or even thousands of hooks on a single line. When fish take the bait, they are likely to remain caught for many hours before the line is hauled in.
“Likewise,” Singer continued, “commercial fishing frequently depends on gill nets––walls of fine netting in which fish become snared, often by the gills. They may suffocate in the net, because, with their gills constricted, they cannot breathe. If not, they may remain trapped for many hours before the nets are pulled in.”
At minimum humans kill about 150 per human per year, 17 times more than the global sum of mammals and birds raised for slaughter.
“Let’s assume that all this fishing is sustainable,” Singer wrote, “though of course it is not. It would then be reassuring to believe that killing on such a vast scale does not matter, because fish do not feel pain. But the nervous systems of fish are sufficiently similar to those of birds and mammals to suggest that they do.”
Culum Brown, Ph.D., a biology professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, co-editor of the book Fish Cognition and Behaviour, assistant editor of The Journal of Fish Biology, and editor of the journal Animal Behaviour, in mid-2014 published an extensive review of the evidence for fish suffering in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Animal Cognition.
Citing the key findings from a wealth of relevant scientific research, Brown argued that “It would be impossible for fish to survive as the cognitively and behaviorally complex animals they are without a capacity to feel pain.”
But, though long debated, this point is no longer in serious scientific dispute. Of greater note, Brown found that “Fish compare well to the rest of the vertebrates in most tasks,” with cognitive and behavioral attributes comparable to those of primates.
“Multiple complex tasks”
Various studies demonstrate, Brown reported, that fish can “perform multiple complex tasks simultaneously,” an ability that was until recently considered to be uniquely human; “have excellent long-term memories,” including of times, places, locations, social experiences, and aversive situations; “live in complex social communities where they keep track of individuals and can learn from one another, a process that leads to the development of stable cultural traditions…similar to some of those seen in birds and primates”; “show signs of Machiavellian intelligence such as cooperation and reconciliation”; use tools; and “use the same methods for keeping track of quantities as we do.”
Although mammals and birds have long been known to be able to count their dependent offspring, research demonstrating the ability of animals to count in other contexts has only recently emerged.
Do the math
Rosa Rugani of the University of Trento and Lucia Regolin of the University of Padova, both Italy, in the April 2009 edition of Proceedings of the Royal Society of Britain published details of experiments demonstrating that newly hatched chickens can add and subtract. Their work appeared to signify that the ability to distinguish among greater and lesser numbers is innate, rather than learned. Where previous researchers had asked “How soon do animals begin to count?”, the question became “How far back in evolution did numeracy emerge?”
The discovery of numeracy in fish appears to push the answer back at least to the evolution of vertebrates.
Social cooperation and complex planning ability among fish of differing species was reported in the December 8, 2006 edition of PLoS Biology by Redouan Bshary and colleagues at the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland, who had studied groupers recruiting moray eels to join them in paired hunting expeditions. Leaving the safety of their caves and crevices, the moray eels forage in coral reefs much like dogs going to ground after burrowing prey. While the groupers catch smaller fish who are flushed out into open water, the moray eels get those who hesitate or turn back.
Bshary et al found that groupers summon moray eels to join them in hunts with a set of head shakes which could be interpreted as a physically expressed interspecies language.
What fish have not yet evolved is just a communication system as obvious to humans as a scream to demonstrate when they feel pain. But the struggling of a hooked fish or a fish pulled out of water would be sufficiently obvious to most people––if they had not already told themselves that fish do not suffer, even when subjected to the worst cruelties inflicted on fellow humans by way of criminal punishment in the depths of the Middle Ages.
(See also Why was a convicted poacher named to Scottish Wild Fisheries Reform advisory commission?, EPA urges power plants to quit cooking fish & crustaceans alive, Tail-docking dogs & boiling crustaceans; and Scientists confirm: hurt crabs feel pain.)
Steve Hindi says
SHARK thanks Merritt and Beth Clifton for covering the plight of fish. SHARK will soon announce a new, marine-based initiative to bring much needed education of, and relief for those who live in and around the water.
Sharon Yildiz says
Thanks for this very enlightening story. I always suspected fish of higher intelligence, having trained a pet beta to do tricks as a child. My father fished, and I cried and complained at the cruel treatment of fish and bait animals, often adopting the bait as a “pet’ or insisting on releasing the bait animals without using them as bait. Anyway, I didn’t know about all the research showing tool use, communication, etc., but always thought it might be the case..
Jamaka Petzak says
Years ago, I “saved” several fish who were homeless and unwanted; most were goldfish deemed “not special enough” for the aquarium, and the other was a smallish grey fish with mottled colored spots along his sides, whom I later learned was a cichlid (“Jack Dempsey Fish”). He grew quite large and certainly did his namesake proud, having to be separated from the other fish in my parents’ large tank because he had a propensity for attacking and mutilating their fish. He lived a long life and was quite a guy. The poor goldfish did not fare as well, though I spent a small fortune trying to make their lives as comfortable as possible, and bought friends for them when one found him/herself alone. They were fascinating little friends, and I’ve never doubted that they had personalities, so why not feelings as well?
Dee Duran says
I followed your links, and ended up on this article:
Even without watching the video, that sounds like a terrible mindless slaughter.
I also found this very informative article on the rays:
Among other things, it points out that killing them could upset the ecological balance because their numbers have been overestimated and they have a long time to maturation and gestation. They also point out alternative, non-lethal, methods to keep rays out of oyster beds. Finally, they state that the rays’ consumption of oysters has been overestimated, and it does not form the bulk of their diet. The article strives for ‘balance’ but it does include useful information.
Thank you for all you do for animals.
I wish you much success.
Alfredo Kuba says
What humans do to other species is sickening. All animals, being land animals or marine animals have demonstrated since Darwin that all have very similar and alike capacities. Without feeling pain, fear, joy, etc, they would not be able to survive. Humans are not and should not be the measure for which other species “intelligence” or capacities anymore than any other species the measure for humans for anything. All life is sacred and we should treat them as we want to be treated.
Mary Finelli says
It’s with great gladness that I returned from tabling at the Bethlehem (Pa., my hometown) Vegfest this weekend to find this superb article. While visiting with my family at a local park there yesterday, we were happily surprised to find the words “Fish are friends not food or fun” chalked near the creek, where fishing is popular.
We introduced ourselves to the family of the young girls who had chalked it. They told us that earlier they had seen what looked to be boys fighting with a duck hooked on their fishing line. The boys were going to cut the line, leaving the hook embedded in the duck’s mouth, and leaving the duck to very possibly suffer a slow, agonizing death. Fortunately, the girls’ parents were able to hold the duck and remove the hook, and the duck flew off.
It brought home in a very immediate way how many animals, and how many types of animals, are harmed by fishing. At the same time, meeting this family, who expressed their respect and concern for all animals, including insects, was a very heartening encounter. Compassionate children such as these girls and Jack (pictured above), give hope for a better world for animals, those living in or out of water. It’s to the great credit of those who help cultivate their compassion.
Sincere thanks to Animals 24-7 for helping to bring concern for fish into focus.
Karen Davis, PhD says
Thank you for your extremely informative article about fish and the fact that they are cognitively complex creatures who suffer (and no doubt enjoy life) the same as mammals and birds – that is, when they are not being tortured for “Red Lobster.”.
TV ads are always portraying fishing as a benign activity associated with mental health and well-being. Whole Foods runs ads showing thousands of fish being “responsibly” hauled on decks for customers who “care.”
My friend Deborah Tanzer, a psychologist in New York, had a fish named Fisher who would always swim to the top of the aquarium to be petted. I observed Fisher do this several times when visiting Debby. I stroked his head myself. (He has since passed away.) The more we learn about all animals and especially those historically and conventionally deemed stupid and insensate, the more clear it is that these views do not hold water.
With Fish Feel and SHARK speaking out knowledgeably and passionately for fish, the animal advocacy community has new opportunities and responsibilities – new animals – to embrace.
Karen Davis, United Poultry Concerns http://www.upc-online.org
A man visited my school as a child for some kind of “outreach” program promoting fishing to kids. He regaled us with exciting fishing stories and handed out rubber worms for us to use in our own fishing expeditions. Always the class animal lover, I specifically asked if the hooks hurt the fish, and he assured me that fish don’t have feeling in their mouths. I took the bait.
The first few times I went out fishing, I didn’t catch any fish, but when I finally did, the hook had gone through the fish’s eye, and I was deeply disturbed to see this. I really had no idea what fishing actually involved until I saw it for myself as a kid.
Mary Finelli says
Lindsay, thank you very much for relating that. It comes in sharp contrast to this recent opinion piece in The Washington Post -by ultra lowlife Rick Berman* of the ironically named Center for Consumer Freedom- about activists using the public schools as “another venue to peddle their platforms on labor unions, animal liberation, vegan diets and leftist environmental policy”: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/aug/24/rick-berman-a-liberal-dose-of-propaganda-in-school/ As I noted there, to see indoctrination in public schools, check out Ag in the Classroom – government sponsored propaganda for agribiz: http://www.agclassroom.org
It’s to the great credit of your childhood self that you realized how wrong fishing is despite the encouragement you received to participate in it. We have posted similar accounts on Your Page of the Fish Feel website: http://fishfeel.org/yourpage.php If you’d like to share your account there -or if anyone else would like to share theirs- please send a message to Info@FishFeel.org. Thanks again!